Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) was one of the leading photojournalists of her time, a mainstay of the Luce empire whose signature work for Fortune celebrated the machine age and whose later work for Life featured the human face and a "progressive" humanitarian sensibility. Many of her photo essays are classics; indeed those on the Louisville Flood and its victims, on the liberation of the Nazi death camps, and on the poverty of India and Pakistan are now part of the iconography of the twentieth century.
In this brief collection of her earliest work, two art historians present the "unknown" Bourke-White, the young amateur aged eighteen to twenty-six. Her first photographs, created in 1921 under the tutelage of Columbia University's Clarence H. White, were impeccably designed soft-edged still lifes, "painterly" images characteristic of the period but not of the artist. Bourke-White took this technique to college – to the University of Michigan and to Cornell – and there made traditional portraits of campus buildings and, almost by accident, her first "industrial" photograph, a Duchamp-like study of loudspeakers. After graduation she moved to Cleveland, where, trembling with fear and aesthetic excitement, she photographed the interior of the Otis Steel Mill, the trestles of the High Level Bridge, and the new Terminal Tower. It was these thrilling Cleveland photographs, made in 1928–30, that won her an audience with Luce, who sent her on to Fortune . . . and to fame.
The eighty photographs reproduced here have seldom been seen outside the archives of Cornell's Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art and the University of Syracuse Library. They will fascinate anyone interested in the life and work of Margaret Bourke-White and the early history of American photojournalism.
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In looking at Bourke-White's photographs from her student days and following the scope of her career in photojournalism until her death, it is difficult to believe that all of this was the work a single person. There is a consistent strain throughout her career that can best be described as power. Each picture has this vusal stranth, whether a waterfall or the dramatic incandescent flow of molten steel in a darkened mill. Added to other aspects of her photographic art was her personal will. She established photojournalism standards that became a great gift to journalists of the twentieth century. All of this from Bourke-White, a tiny woman, but a giant among her fellow photojournalists. Her images burned into the memory of Americans for decades of life. This book reveals the foundation of her career. -- Robert J. Doherty, Former Director, George Eastman HouseAbout the Author:
Ronald E. Ostman is a professor in the Department of Communications at Cornell University.
Harry Littell is a photographer, an artist, and a teacher at Tompkins Cortland Community College, in Dryden, New York.
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